In the North American hay industry, Stan Steffen is best known for the baling equipment he's designed over the last 30 years. Asian dairy and beef farmers know him for the compressed straw shipped to them each week.

But neither new equipment nor the intricacies of exporting straw captivate the 62-year-old farmer as much as alfalfa.

“Alfalfa has always been my first love,” says Steffen. “It's clean and green — I never get tired of alfalfa.

“It's also a stable commodity that's going to be wanted for a long, long time. Alfalfa is used for horses, dairy and exports. And it's sustainable; you don't wear the ground out growing it.”

What keeps this grower challenged, he says, is not the growing, but the handling of the crop.

“I've spent my life working to keep quality and harvest the crop quickly. We've managed to escape the weather using chemical drying agents, rakes, tedders — all kinds of equipment. We even built our own balers to handle the hay faster.”

That's why, in 2002, Steffen was awarded the National Hay Association's Haymaker of the Year award. His innovative bale-handling systems, including bale accumulators, compressors and container-loading systems, helped revolutionize the hay and straw export market.

Steffen, of Silverton, OR, has farmed for 42 years, growing, baling and buying hay and straw for export. Hay is also sold domestically to buyers from Hawaii to Pennsylvania.

He started exporting straw to Japan in the 1970s, when bales were loaded by hand. But by 1985, Steffen had designed a fork loader system that lowered shipping costs for the hay industry.

“This was an important development because it allowed exporting to really pick up,” Steffen says.

In 1998, Steffen and his son David built a bale press that handles 34 × 48 × 96" straw and alfalfa bales. Bales are sliced into thirds, compressed and then sliced into thirds again. The resulting 11"-wide bales weigh 55 lbs each, making them a convenient size, Steffen says. Asian women and children can handle them.

“Slicing bales gives us a close look at the quality of the hay,” he says.

Two years ago, Steffen switched to packaging hay bales into shrink-wrapped bundles and loading with a cotton squeeze. “It kind of hurt my pride,” he laughs, “because we had been using an automated bulk handling system that I developed using a robotic bale hook rack to load bales.”

But shrink-wrapped bundles make loading faster and cleaner and retain moisture and nutrition, he adds.

“You've got to roll with it; you can't get stuck on one thing,” Steffen says about exporting, farming and inventing. “I guess that's why we've succeeded; we try to find out new ways of doing things.”

Each Steffen Hay Inc., unit of 18 bales also carries a certified weight and quality tag so customers know what they're getting.

“When you get into long-distance shipping, you need to make sure the quality is maintained when it gets there. This way, what you send out you can be pretty darn sure there's nothing wrong with it.”

Besides Japan, Steffen also exports to South Korea. Five days a week, two 40'-long metal containers, each filled with about 28 tons of compressed straw, leave for Asian dairy and beef farms.

He jokes that he planned to continue in the straw business just until he figured out growing alfalfa. Thirty years later, he's still exporting straw and growing alfalfa.

Steffen bales straw from local ryegrass fields and also contracts with nearby farmers for ryegrass straw bales. He grows timothy for retail and on-farm sales, orchardgrass for seed, native grass for hay and soft white winter wheat. And he buys and sells orchardgrass hay from eastern Oregon growers.

“They can grow it there and keep the color really well,” he says.

His area, however, is ideally suited for growing alfalfa. “The market's here; the soil's perfect. We don't have alfalfa weevils. We haven't had any disease or pest problems.”

His four cuttings a year usually average about 7 tons/acre. Steffen uses his custom-built three-head, 24'-wide swather and 24' rake to make hay efficiently.

“We have had very little of our hay rained on in the last 10 years. We usually get a four-day window and get it off.”

Steffen works the farm with his wife, Ruth, who grew up in the retail hay and grain business; three sons; a daughter; a son-in-law; and several part-time “neighbor kids.” Another son-in-law, an agronomist, helps look after the crops.

Son David owns and operates Steffen Systems, which is known for its bale presses and other equipment. Steffen started the hay equipment company in the 1970s to make what he designed. But he was happy to turn the business over to David in 1990.

“I never wanted to get sidetracked too far from making hay,” Steffen explains.

Today, he's working on new haying equipment and has studied how to ship compressed alfalfa haylage overseas.

Which means, once again, that he's back to his first love, alfalfa.